Cotton Links


Winning The War On Insect Pests

By Jack Bacheler
Raleigh, N.C.

• M.S. and Ph.D. entomology, University of Florida
• Professor and Entomology Department Extension Leader, N.C. State University
• North Carolina IPM Project Leader
• Area: applied insect ecology and pest management – primarily cotton
• Former career: USA Olympic team – 5,000 meters in ‘68 Summer Games in Mexico City, marathon in ‘72 Summer Games in Munich, Germany

I arrived on the North Carolina State University entomology scene in the early 1970s without having seen a boll, let alone a boll weevil. Even as a green Yankee (as I have been often reminded: Five years in Florida does not make you a Southerner) post-doctorate student working for J.T. Bradley Jr. on various aspects of northern boll weevil populations, it quickly became apparent that both boll weevils and bollworms were serious threats to profitable cotton production here.

Cotton acreage had declined to only 50,000 acres. If anyone had told me then that these pests would be rendered essentially impotent during my career, I’d have said he was nuts. It would have been impossible to predict that our whole Southeast cotton production region would be weevil-free, and that safe, plant-delivered toxins would almost eliminate caterpillar damage from terminals, squares and bolls. Or that cotton plants could be engineered to tolerate glyphosate, resulting in an unprecedented ease of weed control and the further expansion of strip-till and no-till cotton back into areas of the state that had seen cotton disappear long before I arrived in North Carolina.

For cotton producers, however, with every monumental pest management advance come new challenges. With the demise of the boll weevil, beginning here in 1978 and the huge reduction in caterpillar damage beginning with the introduction of Bt cottons in 1996 and the associated plunge in insecticide use, producers were greeted rudely with rapid increases in stinkbug and plant bug levels and damage.

Witness the current Mid-South experience with plant bugs. With the widespread use of safe, convenient seed treatments for thrips control and the associated greater need for disruptive foliar follow-up sprays, farmers in many areas are experiencing cotton aphid and spider mite build-ups. Although as a cotton entomologist, it’s sweet to hear weed scientists use the term “resistance management,” the seriousness of glyphosate resistance has elevated resistant Palmer amaranth to the status of “the new boll weevil” in some areas of the Carolinas, Georgia and elsewhere.

Despite these and other challenges, the value of the above and other breakthroughs in managing pests in the Southeast is hard to overestimate. North Carolina and Virginia often led the Cotton Belt in estimates of boll weevil damage in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily as a result of small cotton field size (many unmanaged). If we had to deal again with economic levels of this pest, many producers would probably be rethinking their strong ties to cotton production. Not having to deal with boll weevils is a gift that some of our new “crop” of producers take for granted.

The adoption of Bt cotton in a North Carolina/Virginia area of comparatively low levels of tobacco budworms, loopers and beet and fall armyworms was met here with initial skepticism. However, research here and elsewhere in the Southeast has shown that stinkbug damage to cotton bolls in Bt cotton is generally far less than the damage caused by bollworms in conventional cotton under similar management levels. In combating the scourge of herbicide resistance, the Southeast is blessed with outstanding weed scientists, consultants and innovative producers.

As any cotton farmer knows, the challenges both within and outside of the pest management arena are many. The responsibility of simultaneously juggling crop production, farm and labor management, record keeping, marketing and the vagaries of weather is daunting. On the land grant university side of things, administrators are facing declining federal and state support, resulting in increased pressure to hire faculty who can generate large grants and their associated overhead to the universities. While these grants provide an enormous benefit to universities, the faculty who fill these positions are increasingly basic in their interests.

In the Agriculture and Life Sciences colleges or departments common to many land grant universities, this can result in a shift to the life sciences side of the agriculture and life sciences equation, sometimes at the expense of the applied research, which provides much of the foundation for undergirding Extension and its mission to help solve practical problems for producers.

Over this and the coming decades, it seems imperative that producers, consultants, industry personnel and university and USDA scientists work toward keeping the innovations and breakthroughs ahead of present and unforeseen challenges.

Contact Jack Bachelor at North Carolina State University at jack_bacheler@ncsu.edu or (919) 515-8877.

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